Though a commercial, and critical success, director John Carney admits he fell out of love with cinema during his experience shooting Begin Again, and tells HeyUGuys, exclusively, that a return to his roots to create Sing Street was exactly what he needed to rekindle his relationship.
Discussing the project with us in a London hotel, Carney also tells us what attracts him so greatly to the musical genre, and why it was important to make the songs in this indelible, enchanting drama good, but not too good…
This brand, yes. I did always watch musicals in fairness. I forgot for a few years that I did, so I’ve kinda done my homework and now it’s paying off. I used to spend years when I was young, maybe 20-23, getting in to films as an adult and watching musicals. Part of my diet in watching classic old movies was An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Guys & Dolls, A Star is Born, and I’m straight as far as I know. It’s weird. All my friends would be like, ‘oh did you see The Godfather or Taxi Driver’ and I’d say, they’re great films, but last night I watched An American in Paris, and they wouldn’t understand why. It was such a great marriage of music and life and cinema and joy all thrown into this Americana thing. They were like John Hughes of their time, just joy and escapism, but they were well-made and the quality was really high. They weren’t just escapism in the way a cartoon was, they had substantial jokes and humour and wit and smartness in them.
Where your films differ, is that your characters don’t just break into song like say, West Side Story, it’s always in context, they’re musicians in the movie playing songs they’re supposed to have written. More steeped in realism in that regard.
Yeah, and that’s the trick in a way, and the breakthrough I had in Once, I remember writing that down and thinking, what does a modern musical look like? And it doesn’t look like a musical, in fact you shouldn’t even know it’s a musical. That was a big breakthrough for me because it was almost like making a musical was to make an anti-musical, but it’s still musical with eight or nine songs which are sung – but kids are no longer going to accept people breaking into song unless it’s a comedy or tongue-in-cheek. Also I think The Simpsons and South Park are so sharp and so smart and they’re so genre-busting that it seems like anybody realistically trying to make an actual live action film where people break into song will feel like a parody.
They also feel of their time, and we romanticise over them as part of a bygone era of ‘old Hollywood classics’.
Woody Allen tried to do it with Everyone Says I Love You which was one of his many awful disasters. It was Middle Class Manhattanites singing. It was so wrong. It’s not that it couldn’t be done, it’s just the wrong time to do it.
Do you think that in Sing Street you had a little more licence to be earnest? Because the lead character is a teenager, at an age where writing songs for their crush doesn’t feel mawkish, it feels kinda endearing.
Yeah I think that’s right. The casting of Ferdia as well, because he’s such a little puppy. One of the things I insisted on was no make up – apart from the make up he puts on as a character. Don’t hide the fact this kid has little blushy cheeks that you have when you’re 14, when you constantly have red cheeks. I remember all the other kids, if they had acne that was a good film – whereas in most films it’d be covered up, but I was like, ‘give them more sugar’. You look at these kids and think, that is a real kids face, and they’re trying to sing and get the girl, and who’s not going to be endeared to that?
I interviewed Ian Kelly earlier and he was talking about the fact the actors are all friends for life now – that must be quite touching to know you’ve not only given them a potential platform for a career, but had such an impact on their personal lives too.
That’s great, it’s really nice to hear that. They do get on really well, and I wanted to be very careful with putting kids in films, I think it’s a great responsibility and you have to be careful. They’re getting recognised on the streets now which I sort of wish wouldn’t happen, because I’ve seen what fame can do to certain people. The Keira Knightley thing, it’s like you can’t be taken seriously anymore and you can’t take yourself seriously as an artist with people just trying to get your photograph, and I’m really worried that these kids at this age will be plagued, and particularly Ferdia, by journalists and the industry itself. I’m conscious of that when casting these kids and I hope they’ll be alright, because it’s so weird. We made a film, we should shut up now and go and do something else, but we talk about it for years.
Which I’m perpetuating by sitting here now… But it’s funny with Ferdia because in the movie he starts off fresh-faced and introverted and by the end of the film he’s so confident. When I met him he definitely seemed more akin to the Conor we see at the end of the movie. Did you notice that change in him throughout this experience?
No he was like that when he walked into his audition – he was one of the first kids in the room but one of the last people I cast in the film, and for that reason. I thought he was too confident, can I get him to play the early stages of the role? But he did, and he delivered and he learned how to have some humility and how to seem shy and reserved, because you can obviously tell Ferdia doesn’t have any problems with that because he’s so good-looking and confident, and he;s been really brought up by two great parents. He’s a well-adjusted kid. Kids in Ireland in the 80s weren’t well-adjusted.
Is there a certain enthusiasm and energy that can be infectious, deriving from non-professional actors taking part in their first production? There’s no sense of mundanity, they haven’t done it so many times it’s just a part of the job. Did that attitude rub off on the rest of the cast and crew?
Yeah that was the case to a degree, and that was the point of the film for me, I just made Begin Again with Ms. Knightley and I just found working in that sort of movie star zone with the paparazzi, frocks, evenings and openings and all that nonsense, it wore a hole in me and I fell a little bit out of love with cinema, which was really horrible for me because I love films. So I wanted to do something that would restore my faith in why I originally became a filmmaker and this really dod it. Because you’re right, not just the casting of the kids, but the whole approach, let’s go back to Ireland and have none of that nonsense, no limousines, we just hung out in the streets and made a film, like we did with Once, and that’s the way for these films to get made properly, you can’t make it look like you’re singing a song or playing a guitar if you don’t love music, if you’re not committed enough.
Though do you need to make films like Begin Again, to then go and make your Sing Streets?
I like Begin Again, I’m really proud of that movie. I just think with Keira it was like asking her to do something that she could not do. I think these films rely completely on their leading man or woman. Mark Ruffalo delivered, Adam Levine too – they all did, because I wasn’t asking them to do anything that they could not do, but she could not do that. She couldn’t make the film seem humble. Had I got somebody who could kill that role and really deliver, I think there would be more continuity between Sing Street and Begin Again and Once – the three would have seemed together, but Begin Again sticks out a little bit, it’s a little awkward in the family of musicals that I’ve made now.
The songs are really good in this movie of course, but was there ever a danger of them being too good? Because we’ve got to believe this group of kids wrote them…
Are they good enough to listen to, but not good enough to be believable?
They are? Good, I thought so as well. It was a challenge, of course, one of the main problems with this film – how do we get them to be good enough so that it’s not boring watching them develop, but not so good that it’s implausible, and I think we got that right. It’s an escapist fantasy movie as well, it’s not supposed to be Shane Meadows. I love Shane, but it’s not a Shane Meadows movie, it’s not Cinéma Vérité. It’s an adult remembering what it was like to be a teenager, where you felt you could play as well as any other band. So there’s also the question of, are they as good as they think they are?
So finally, I personally identified most with Jack Reynor’s character. I’m an older brother, and my younger brother is a musician. And I’m a layabout. That’s what resonated with me most, and then at the end there’s a dedication to brothers – so was that the main crux of this tale for you too?
Well it became the main, romantic relationship within the film as the film was written and while life happened in reality, was that the main love of the film is between the two brothers, but it would’ve been a different movie if the film was about brothers, it’s why the poster is the way it is, I would’ve set off down a different path had I intended this to be just about a sibling relationship. You have to listen to the film itself and listen to what it wants to be, if that’s not too pretentious. Unless you’re a genius, which I’m definitely not. I’m not saying I’m just a journeyman, but I’m not a genius. I still consider myself to be learning my trade and part of that is listening to your movie. I’m not ready to completely know exactly what I’m up too 100% of the time, there’s a certain bluff, a certain improvised feel to this which I’m doing, for now.
That’s a good thing. You should maintain that.
Yeah well we’ll see, I don’t really have any choice.
Sing Street is released on May 20th. You can read our five star review here.